What, Me Worry?

Timothy Wilken

Bjorn Lomborg, Ph.D., associate professor in statistics, Department of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Denmark, is a concerned environmentalist, a former Greenpeace member, a left-wing sympathizer who is vegetarian because he does not want to kill animals. When Lomborg started investigating the statistics behind the current gloomy view of the environment, he was genuinely surprised. As the facts clearly pointed towards an ever-improving world, he published these statistics as four lengthy articles in a leading Danish newspaper, unleashing the biggest post-war debate with more than 400 articles in all the major papers.

The medium for the message is The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg’s 500-plus page blow-by-blow of “the Real State of the World,” as the book is confidently subtitled. Lomborg’s thesis is simple enough: Environmentalists have deluded the masses into believing that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, when in fact, as the title of the first chapter bluntly states, “Things are getting better.”

Unfortunately, Lomborg’s message is being heard and many humans are grabbing for it like a drowning man seeking a floating life ring. In our present world of high stress, with our economy  and security both in free fall, his “good news” is very seductive indeed. He tells us that:

There is no need to fret about the world running out of oil, natural gas, or other fossil fuels: Each year, we’re discovering more than we’re consuming. Plus, there’s always that exciting and abundant source of energy, nuclear fusion! And for heaven’s sake, don’t worry about wasting energy—if we ever do run low on traditional fuels, market forces will compel us to use them more efficiently, and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind will finally come into their own.

In  Lomborg’s analysis of population problems, he dismisses the idea of population sustainability as largely meaningless because it is a local concept, dealing only with the local sustainability of support systems. Local imbalances between people and resources can be remedied, he says, either by international trade or by people simply moving to cities.

Lomborg goes on to tell us that: We will not lose our forests; we will not run out of energy, raw materials, or water. We have reduced atmospheric pollution in the cities of the developed world and have good reason to believe that this will also be achieved in the developing world. Our oceans have not been defiled, our rivers have become cleaner and support more life. … Nor is waste a particularly big problem. … The problem of the ozone layer has been more or less solved. The current outlook on the development of global warming does not indicate a catastrophe. … And, finally, our chemical worries and fear of pesticides are misplaced and counterproductive.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lomborg is not a very good scientist. His area of “expertise” is statistics and as we all know one’s conclusions are no better that the “facts” one chooses to base those conclusions on.

A number of good scientists are now taking a hard look at Lomborg’s book. You can read their opinions at Grist Magazine.

  • Extinction
    Biologist E.O. Wilson—two-time Pulitzer prize winner, discoverer of hundreds of new species, and one of the world’s greatest living scientists—debunks Lomborg’s analysis of extinction rates.
  • Climate
    Stephen H. Schneider, one of the foremost climate scientists in the United States, discredits Lomborg on global climate change and takes Cambridge University Press and the media to task for publishing and praising a polemic.
  • Species diversity
    Norman Myers, an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Oxford University, a member of the U.S. National Academy of the Sciences, and a recipient of several of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards, looks at Lomborg on biodiversity and concludes that he lacks even “a preliminary understanding of the science in question.”
  • Population
    Lester R. Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, reviews Lomborg on population and concludes that his analysis is so “fundamentally flawed” that other professionals would do well to disassociate themselves from his work.
  • Forests
    Emily Matthews, a forest expert and senior associate with the World Resources Institute, shows that Lomborg reaches wildly inaccurate conclusions about deforestation by fudging data or failing to interpret it correctly.
  • Statistics
    Al Hammond, senior scientist at World Resources Institute, criticizes Lomborg for mischaracterizing the contemporary environmental movement and committing precisely the sins for which he attacks environmentalists: exaggeration, sweeping generalizations, the presentation of false choices, selective use of data, and outright errors of fact.
  • Human health
    Devra Davis, a leading epidemiologist and environmental health researcher, acknowledges that environmentalists have made some errors but argues that Lomborg, too, is seriously mistaken about how the environment affects public health.
  • Energy
    Energy expert David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, says Lomborg wastes his time battling a straw man: Virtually no one in the contemporary environmental movement disputes that fossil fuels are abundant, Nemtzow argues; in fact, it’s precisely their abundance and their impact on our ecosystems that’s the trouble.
  • So what?
    In a review of the politics behind the statistics, Grist Assistant Editor Kathryn Schulz argues that Lomborg’s real goal is to divide the left and discredit the environmental movement.
  • Links
    Scientists, pundits, policy makers, and everyday folk extol and excoriate The Skeptical Environmentalist, elsewhere on the web.